Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point. Logically, is he not arguing that somebody who accepts one faith rather than another should accept a lesser degree of protection in law? I do not think that that should be the case.

Mr. Hoban: Because certain ethnic groups are categorised in relation to their religion, there is an imbalance in the protection that they receive, which is an important issue to consider and bear in mind. My concern is that the Bill will be impractical to enforce, which will not help the current situation in which people express views hostile to a range of religions. There is an imbalance in the situation, and the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight it. However, I am not sure whether the Bill will resolve that imbalance to the satisfaction of people who want to express a view, or no view at all, on religious matters.

The second problem with the provision is the definition of religion. The Bill defines religious hatred as

It does not protect religion per se, and it does not extend the powers of the law of blasphemy. It protects people because they subscribe to a religious belief, rather than religious belief itself .

It will fall to the courts to decide whether a religion or belief falls within the definition in the Bill. That is drawn widely and, as the explanatory notes state, it includes:

a range of branches within those religions, and groups defined by a lack of religious belief. There is a concern that that protection will extend to groups that express dangerous views.

I do not know how many hon. Members heard the exchange on the "Today" programme on Friday morning between the representative of a group called Catalyst, which helps people who have joined cults and who wish to leave, and a representative of an organisation called The Family, which was known as the Children of God a few years ago. The representative from Catalyst argued that some cults are dangerous, because they create problems between people and their families and because of some of the views that they express.

If one starts to go down the route of accepting cults as religions, organisations such as Catalyst may find it difficult to do their work challenging cults' beliefs and the practices that they adopt in propagating those beliefs. The issue is one of definition, and the courts will have to decide an issue—what religion actually is—that philosophers have failed to resolve over centuries. We may provide protection that should not be extended to such groups, particularly when they express dangerous views.

Religion is a matter for debate and discussion—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda is itching to intervene.
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1118

Chris Bryant: I used to be a youth officer for the diocese of Peterborough, where we often dealt with youngsters who had been bruised and abused by cults in Northamptonshire. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should not advance protection for many of the things that cults may want to do. However, to incite religious hatred against people who subscribe to a particular set of religious views is surely always wrong.

Mr. Hoban: I will address that point in a second, because I want to discuss the dividing line between religious expression, freedom and activity, and actions that might lead to incitement of religious hatred, which is the third issue about which I am concerned.

Religion is a matter for debate and discussion. A wide range of activities would constitute religious activity. Where is the line drawn in debate and discussion between free expression, fair comment, causing offence—although it would not fall within the scope of the Bill's offence of inciting religious hatred—and statements that might lead to, or be deemed to lead to, inciting religious hatred? The explanatory notes define what hatred is not—

but do not go on to define what it is.

Let me give an example of where the issue may arise. As a practising Catholic, I am called upon to bear witness to Christ through my adherence to the values set out in the Gospel. I do not think that that is controversial or would in any way incite religious hatred. But I am also called upon to be a missionary—to evangelise by taking the Church's message out to others. If I seek to engage somebody in a debate about my faith, where do I draw the line between legitimate discussion and debate, and what some may deem an incitement to hatred? If there was a chance of converting somebody to my faith, I would stress the positive, or light, side of religion, to echo the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead. I do not believe that I would be inciting anyone to religious hatred. If I go further than that by emphasising the negative in other faiths instead of the positive in my own, where does that take me? Where does one draw the line between discussing the negative aspects of other faiths and inciting religious hatred? I might not intend to incite hatred, but my words could be interpreted in that way.

That is where the grey area starts to appear. What activities are to be defined as inciting religious hatred or deemed possibly to be doing so? It is difficult to define what constitutes an offence under the Bill. Different people might draw in different places the very fine line between emphasising the negative aspects of somebody else's faith and moving towards inciting religious hatred.

Let me make a more practical, less theoretical point that echoes remarks made by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead. Some people hold the view that Catholics' loyalty to the state and to the country is compromised by their need to follow the Church's teachings, set in Rome, and that where conflicts arise between the Church's teachings and our country's accepted morality, we are meant to follow the views of Rome because they take precedence. One might
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1119
characterise that as, "Rome's orders are to be followed." Most reasonable people would agree that that is a matter of religious belief and a matter for vigorous debate.

What happens if one goes beyond the theological argument about to whom one owes obedience, to discuss the consequences of those beliefs for the actions of Catholics? The Bill is to do with inciting religious hatred against people who are defined by their religion. What happens if one starts to criticise the loyalty of Catholics to the state or to the Government? What happens if the Catholic Church decides that a war that the British Government seek to prosecute is not a just war?

Chris Bryant: Like Iraq.

Mr. Hoban: In some cases, the Catholic Church gave people the opportunity to exercise their own consciences to decide whether the war in Iraq was just.

If a soldier was serving in the armed forces when the Catholic Church had said that the war was unjust and the soldier should not be fighting in it, what would happen if his colleagues started to question his loyalty, commitment, dedication and willingness to carry out orders? The Minister has suggested that that would not be inciting hatred, but it would not need to provoke hatred or to have any physical manifestation to be interpreted by some people as inciting hatred.

The further we go into this religious debate, the more strident and vitriolic the argument becomes, and the more the loyalty of people serving Queen and country is questioned, for example, the closer we get to what might be deemed a grey area. The Bill is not clear about exactly what constitutes incitement to religious hatred. Could its provisions actually set one soldier or sailor against another? We also need to be aware that if they were applied to certain groups of people engaged in religious activity, those people might be deemed to have fulfilled some of its criteria. The Bill is very quiet about what constitutes hatred. People might think that this is somewhat fanciful, but it is not that long since we heard the slogan, "Home rule is Rome rule," and some of those sentiments might still be around today.

There is also the issue of intent. In the context of the existing offence of incitement to racial hatred, "Halsbury's Law Direct" says:

So someone could, for example, create an art work that they felt was a powerful polemic against religion, but they could be caught under the provisions of the Bill if that art work were deemed by others to incite religious hatred, even if there had been no intention to do so.

There are many grey areas involved in trying to determine how the provisions should be applied to religious activity. There is also a broader point, however. Where does this leave freedom of speech? How do we reconcile freedom of expression with laws that prevent incitement to religious hatred? Religion is a legitimate area for public debate. My concern is that,
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1120
consciously or unconsciously, legislation of this nature would curb the freedom of speech. The threat of being prosecuted, of vexatious litigation or of the police being summoned to investigate a religious meeting or the activities at a stall where religious literature was being handed out, for example, could be enough to make people think again, and stop them undertaking the legitimate expression of their views.

The Home Secretary referred to the Salman Rushdie test: would Salman Rushdie's book be banned under the terms of the Bill? He was clear that it would not. However, one man's free speech might be another man's legitimate debate, or another's incitement to religious hatred. This is a matter of perception and perspective. Not everyone sees these issues from the same liberal perspective that judges them on their merits and sees them as intellectual arguments. Certain writing, for example, might be intended to provoke and stimulate debate, or even to cause offence. However, we do not all share the common starting point of that liberal perspective, and some people will seek to use this law to curb freedom of expression. Although a number of Church groups have supported this legislation, other voices have been raised in opposition to it, expressing concern about its impact on freedom of expression.

This is an important and sensitive issue that we need to consider carefully. We cannot divorce it from existing legislation on religiously aggravated crimes in terms of blasphemy. We ought to consider such legislation separately rather than as an add-on to an important Bill, so that we could have proper and full debate— not just on the Floor of the House but in Committee —on how to give proper protection both to religion and to freedom of expression.

Clause 119 and schedule 10 will not help to promote that free religious debate. I believe that they will be used to curb freedom of speech and to undermine much of what is already said in this country that represents matters of religious debate, about religions and creeds of all types.

6.1 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page